Since When Do Conservatives Hate Facts?


If a conscience vote on the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme were held today, how many Coalition members of parliament would vote for it?

Not many.

I’m not talking about politics as usual here, where votes are strictly held along party lines and members "cross the floor" at the peril of their political careers. I’m talking about how many of Australia’s elected political representatives actually believe in doing something about climate change.

Of course, as we know, the Greens are not voting for Labor’s emissions trading scheme, because they think it is too weak. That’s not surprising, given the feeble targets it sets and the amount of taxpayers’ money Labor proposes to give to polluting fossil-fuel corporations like Woodside, Rio Tinto, Bluescope Steel — and even the Queensland and NSW Governments in their capacity as owners of coal-fired power stations.

Given their commitment to signing a strong emissions trading bill, we can leave aside the Greens’ objections for the sake of this hypothetical exercise. What I’m asking here is how many of our elected representatives actually believe in climate change at all?

Not many, especially on the conservative side of politics.

Exhibit A is Family First Senator Steve Fielding. This maverick character gained election in 2004 with 1.77 per cent of the Victorian Senate vote, owing to a complicated preference flow in which the ALP tried to freeze out the Victorian Greens. Now he has a veto on literally every bill Labor takes to the Senate, alongside the South Australian independent Nick Xenophon.

Fielding has taken some strange positions in his term as Australia’s first member of the Family First party. Despite a sustained campaign against alcohol advertising, he voted against the Government’s alcopops tax hike — a bill which included tens of millions of dollars of funding for preventative health and anti-alcohol measures.

Lately, he has become convinced that climate change doesn’t exist, with the aid of a small but dogged band of sceptical scientists.

"The Government needs to explain to the Australian people why global temperatures have remained steady over the last 10 to 15 years despite skyrocketing man-made carbon emissions," Fielding writes on his website.

Actually, the Government has — repeatedly, in a series of publications over many years. In fact, in Senator Fielding’s case, it has done so in person, arranging a meeting between Fielding and his sceptics-for-hire with the Commonwealth’s chief scientist Penny Sackett and the ANU’s Will Steffen. Presumably, one of the things the Government has tried to explain to Senator Fielding is that global temperatures have actually been rising over the last 10 to 15 years, and that — taken as a trend since 1860 — the direction of the curve is up. Way up.

"The Earth has been cooling for the past 10 years" is such a pervasive climate myth that scientists like Barry Brook have devoted whole lectures to it and the UK’s highly reputable Hadley Centre has felt the need to issue a publication entitled, simply, "Global warming goes on".

All this was presumably lost on Fielding, who seems firmly in the sway of committed climate sceptics like Dr Bob Carter. So persuasive is his conversion to flat-Earthism, that he has influential cheerleaders in the US media, including the Wall Street Journal barracking him on.

But Fielding is only the best example of a broader trend. There are many climate change sceptics in the Australian Parliament, including the National Party’s Barnaby Joyce and Liberal backbencher Dennis Jensen.

Denial has become a conspicuous trend in Australian public life, particularly on the conservative side of politics. When reality doesn’t accord with your political beliefs, ignore it. Or better still, find a few discredited experts who agree with you and take them to meet Penny Wong.

The Coalition has been rather prone to this kind of thing lately. Take the economy. Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey and Julie Bishop spent so much time attacking the Rudd Government’s stimulus handouts, they couldn’t bring themselves to accept that the payments actually worked. Paul Krugman has pointed out a similar phenomenon in the US, where the US Republicans have consistently argued against stimulating the economy, egged on by economists more concerned about inflation in the future than unemployment now. "It has been a rude shock to see so many economists with good reputations recycling old fallacies," he wrote recently, "like the claim that any rise in government spending automatically displaces an equal amount of private spending, even when there is mass unemployment."

Denialism is a handy tactic in political debate. By attacking the science of climate change or the economics of stimulus, denialists can attack the very premise of their opponents’ arguments. So people who want to do something about the plunging economy or the catastrophic warming of the planet suddenly become wild-eyed zealots in the grip of a dangerous "new religion", instead of sensible types who are trying to insure against future disaster. Denialism is powerful because it turns reality upside-down. Pollution becomes good; stopping it becomes bad. It’s a neat trick.

There is a lot of short-term appeal in denial as a catch-all political strategy. It allows politicians who normally represent the interests of big business and the free flow of capital to argue they are misunderstood rebels fighting a global conspiracy. Indeed, because the reality of climate science is now so widely accepted in the scientific mainstream, the dwindling band of denialists are claiming they are somehow being victimised by the prevailing "orthodoxy". And because action on climate change is going to have to involve regulating carbon pollution, climate denialism has found fertile ground among those of a libertarian and anti-government persuasion.

But denialism is also a betrayal of one of the most cherished facets of political conservatism: realism. Ever since Edmund Burke first reflected on the violent idealism of the French Revolution, one of the key tenets of conservatism has always been a firm and steely grasp of reality. This has been especially true in foreign policy, where conservatives are often the politicians best able to acknowledge that the world is a dangerous place and that prudent steps are required to prevent aggression, as George W Bush’s neo-conservative diplomat John Bolton pointed out in this essay.

But there is a long-term problem with embracing denialism of any type as a political strategy. The problem is that reality eventually hits home. Unfortunately, climate change is real. Believing it isn’t won’t make it go away. It’s no coincidence that the first conservative political leader to recognise the reality of climate change was Margaret Thatcher, a former chemical engineer. Unlike Senator Fielding, she could read a graph.

The majority of the Australian public already realise this, as polls have repeatedly demonstrated. That’s why Liberal Party strategists are so terrified about Labor calling a double dissolution election on climate change. The public believes climate change is real, and wants action.

And therein lies the political risk for the conservative movement. By fervently believing in things they wish were true, rather than trying to come to grips with things that are, conservatives risk discrediting themselves for a generation. In doing so, the Liberals and Nationals in Australia, and the Republicans in the US, risk trashing some of the fundamental tenets of conservatism: beliefs like realism, prudence, and, in John Bolton’s words, "the accretion of experience and reasoning from empirical reality".

After all, there is one type of reality even sceptical politicians must eventually acknowledge: that of the ballot box.


Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.